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Pirates at Durango tonight, prepare for IML challenge

A single question looms for the Pirates as they head into their final two-thirds of the season, with their eyes on March: Are they the best 3A team in the state?

Two polls, Denver Post Preps and Colorado Preps, give the edge to the team that has held the 3A championship title for the last three years — the Holy Family Tigers, from Broomfield. Both polls rank Pagosa Springs second in the state. MaxPreps has the Pirates ranked fifth behind top-ranked Holy Family, Peak to Peak (out of Lafayette), Eaton and Rifle.

Although Varvee ranks Holy Family and Pagosa Springs ninth and 10th (consecutively), those rankings are misleading at best, a joke at worst.

Pirates coach Wes Lewis acknowledged that his team’s notoriety carries both a blessing and a curse.

“That’s one of the things about being so high ranked,” he said. “We have a big bull’s eye on us.”

However the rankings lineup this early in the season, the Pirates need to assert their dominance in the Intermountain League by mid-February before looking for a trip to Fort Collins in March, and two teams could create speed bumps for Pagosa: the Monte Vista Pirates, but especially the Centauri Falcons.

Currently at 7-1, the Falcons will come to Pagosa Springs on Jan. 14 for the Pirates’ first IML match-up. Well-coached by highly-regarded Dave Forrester, the Falcons played a rough-and-tumble game last year and there is no reason to expect a diminished physical level of play this season. With no player topping 5-7, what the Falcons lack in height, they make up for in experience, with five returning seniors and a returning junior on this year’s squad.

“They’re going to be there at the end,” said Lewis. “They have a great coach and a great tradition.”

So far this season, the Falcons have logged impressive wins against IML opponents Monte Vista (60-34 on Dec. 4) and Alamosa (42-24 on Dec. 11). However, the Falcons merely edged the 2A Dolores Bears 49-43 on Dec. 3 — a team the Pirates stomped 51-32 on Dec. 10. The Pirates will travel to Centauri on Feb. 15 for their season closer.

Looking to next Friday’s game, Lewis said, “We’re expecting a junk defense,” referring to Forrester’s tendency to have his team switch up their defensive strategy on the fly. “He’ll (Forrester) throw a lot of different things at us.”

The Falcons are currently ranked eighth instate 3A on Colorado preps and 14th on MaxPreps.

Returning seniors and juniors complement a seasoned Monte Vista squad (5-1 and ranked 18 on MaxPreps) led by Adriana Mora and Ashley Pacheco, both averaging double digits in per game averages. However, despite an impressive record in the early season, their 26-point loss to Centauri along with a slim six-point win against 2A Sargent (41-35 on Dec. 9), a team Pagosa trounced 60-21 on Dec. 17, indicates a team that will need to substantially step up its game if it hopes to seriously challenge the Pirates when they visit Pagosa Springs on Jan. 22, much less when they host the Pirates Feb. 11 for a second match.

The IML otherwise provides no serious competition for the Pagosa girls this season. On Jan. 15, the Pirates travel to Bayfield to challenge a 0-4 Wolverines team that appears in disarray (the two teams meet again in Pagosa on Jan. 29).

Adjusting to a new coach this season, Bayfield has yet to find its rhythm. Losing 53-48 to the Montezuma-Cortez Panthers on Dec. 7 (a team the Pirates pummeled 52-20 on Dec. 11), the Wolverines also lost big to Dolores on Dec. 17 despite stellar performances by Bayfield standouts Candace Shaw and Kayla McCormick.

Huddled in the basement with Bayfield, the 2-4 Alamosa Mean Moose, despite moving down from 4A this year, appear unready to give Pagosa any reason for concern. Scoring only 14 points in their entire game against Trinidad during their Dec. 4 season opener at home, the Mean Moose also fell 37-26 to Buena Vista during the Alamosa tournament; Pagosa defeated the Demons 53-33 on Dec. 4 in Buena Vista.

Hosting the Pirates Jan. 21, the Mean Moose will have another opportunity on Feb. 4 when they travel to Pagosa.

The Pirates host the 1-3 2A Ignacio Bobcats on Jan. 11 in a single match that should give some floor time to Pagosa JV players. The Bobcats were mauled by the Bears 60-53 on Dec. 14 at home.

On Jan. 25, the Pirates travel to Sanford for a match against a tougher-than-they-look 4-2 Indians team. Indeed, the 2A Indians butchered the hapless Mean Moose 55-29 during the first round of the Alamosa Holiday Shootout tournament on Dec. 17 then hammered Buena Vista 39-26 the next night to take the tournament crown.

Pirate JV players should also see some floor time when the 1-11 4A Farmington, N.M. Scorpions make a Jan. 27 visit to Pagosa. Winless since Nov. 20, the Scorpions have been outscored by 219 points so far this season, hardly the mark of a team that will present any trouble for the Pirates in late January.

If the Pirates can navigate past Monte Vista and Centauri this season and during the IML tournament, they’ll have home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Lewis said that his team is focused on IML opponents for the moment and that, “We’re taking a close look at the teams in the league. With the teams outside the league, we’re focused on the things we do well and working on them.”

“For now, we just want to win our league, win our district tournament and we want to go to the playoffs. Then, if we get to state, there will be some stiff competition to focus on.”

Should fortune, tenacity and sheer talent work in the Pirates’ favor to fulfill the team’s goals, for all intents and purposes, Holy Family will be the team to beat.

Not that Lewis agrees with that assessment. “There are more good teams out there than Pagosa Springs and Holy Family,” he said, pointing to the strengths of some of the other top-ranked teams, including Eaton (barely losing to 66-60 to Holy Family in Broomfield on Tuesday), Peak to Peak, Rifle, Olathe and Estes Park.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Centauri is in there, either,” Lewis said. “I don’t care what the Denver Post, Colorado Preps or The Pagosa SUN says, there are a lot of good teams out there.”

Matching Holy Family during summer league play — getting ahead by 10 points at one point, but losing the game in the end — Lewis conceded that Holy Family has a depth that will be difficult to overcome. With coach Ron Rossi getting 2010 3A player of the year Sarah Talamante back, the Tigers’ depth is not lacking by any stretch of the imagination and includes state-ranked players such as Taylor Helbig, Stephanie Giltner, as well as 6-foot-1 centers Kassandra Johannsen and Sierra Williamson.

However, the Pirates are not lacking in depth either: with the top two ranked IML players Mary Brinton and Breezy Bryant leading a lineup that includes strong outside players such as Brooklynn DuCharme, Magan Kraetsch and Destiny Soto a quick, full-on offensive attack and a formidable defensive press, Pagosa has more than enough presence on the field and on the bench to earn their reputation as an odds-on favorite for a state championship appearance.

Of course, the Pirates still have a month and a half before loftier aspirations can be realized, with over a dozen games to play before the league tournament. Tonight, the Pirates face one of their toughest tests of the season when they travel to Durango to face the 4A Demons (5-2) on their own court.

“It should be a real battle, a real test for us,” Lewis said. “They have size, good guards ... we’re a solid ball club, but we’re not taking anything for granted.”

The Pirates are back on the road Saturday, travelling to Salida to challenge the 2-5 Spartans, a team that lost 32-21 in Alamosa on Tuesday and lost 43-21 to Gunnison at home on Dec. 7 (Pagosa beat the Cowboys 43-33 on Dec. 3 in Buena Vista).

“They’re a young team and they’re rebuilding,” said Lewis of the Spartans.

While Saturday should find the Pirates returning to Pagosa with another tick in the win column, the path to Fort Collins is anything but a sure bet. With some tough competition in the conference this year and even tougher competition within the division, Lewis knows that his team’s depth, if it can muster a balance necessary to knock out other teams throughout the state, is the best weapon the Pirates have to justify the team’s No. 2 ranking — and, just maybe, a title, after a tough climb to the Great Eight in Fort Collins this March.